Pacific Standard Time: Women and Art in Los Angeles

This fall the art world buzz is centered on Los Angeles, California. The city is the focus of Pacific Standard Time, a collaboration between more than 60 cultural institutions across Southern California telling the story of the birth of L.A.'s art scene. West Coast art and artists broadened the landscape of contemporary art. New York had a more established modern art scene, and set the pace for much of what went on in the art world.For many years, Los Angeles was considered an artistic underdog (the area was more known for its sunny weather and movie stars than for fine art), and the contributions of its artists weren't taken seriously. But L.A. artists rebelled against the arts establishment, introducing new materials and work methods, and truly enriched American art. There were many women artists at the forefront of art making in the "wild west," and they made important contributions.
Betye Saar's The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, 1972. Photo via

One woman who played a prominent role in the postwar Los Angeles art scene was Betye Saar, an artist who is best known for her assemblage pieces depicting themes of racial pride, spirituality, and ancestral history. Saar created her works with objects she collected in her travels to places such as Mexico, Europe, and Haiti as well as flea markets around Los Angeles. The artist is one of several featured in Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980, an exhibition currently on view at UCLA's Hammer Museum as part of Pacific Standard Time.  Saar seamlessly wove found objects with those of significance to her own family, thus placing her personal legacy within a larger historical context. She also collected racist memorabilia, giving figures and images trapped in stereotypical roles new and more empowering meaning, thus "liberating" the characters, and in turn the hearts and minds of African Americans. Her repurpose of this memorabilia reflected a new consciousness that was beginning to take hold in Black America, which was in a state of great change from the Civil Rights and Black Power movements.

Detail of Bittersweet (Bessie Smith) by Betye Saar.  Image via Courteney Elizabeth Graham

Los Angeles was also home to Asco, a Chicano conceptual multimedia performance art group active from the late 1960s through the 1980s. The Los Angeles Contemporary Museum of Art is presenting Asco: Elite of the Obscure, A Retrospective, 1982-1987. The name Asco comes from the spanish phrase 'me da asco', or 'it disgusts me.' Asco had two female founding members: Patssi Valdez and Diane Gamboa. 
Patssi Valdez and Harry Gamboa, Jr. in Asco's Instant Mural performance. Photo via

Asco staged thought provoking performance actions on the streets of L.A., and were greatly influenced by  events and daily life in their community of East Los Angeles. Asco's Instant Mural was a direct response to the Chicano Mural Movement, in which murals were being created around the city depicting uplifting scenes of community strength, racial pride, and ties to indigenous roots. With Instant Mural, Asco expanded the idea of what Chicano art was. Patssi Valdez was at the center of many of Asco's performances, while Diane Gamboa worked behind the scenes as "consultant, stylist, and referee."

Patssi Valdez in Spray Paint LACMA, 1972. Photo by Harry Gamboa, Jr.

One of ASCO's most high profile performances was Spray Paint LACMA. The piece was inspired by an encounter Harry Gamboa had with a curator at the Los Angeles Contemporary Museum of Art. "Spray Paint LACMA...was conceived in response to a LACMA curator's dismissive statement that Chicanos made graffiti not art, hence their absence from the gallery walls. In other words, 'Chicano Art' was a categorical impossibility," writes Chon A. Noriega in  Afterall: A Journal of Art, Context, and Enquiry. After this encounter, Gamboa returned to LACMA with Asco's other members to spray paint their names on the front wall of the museum and take this photo with Valdez as the central figure. Noriega writes, "in signing the museum, Asco collapsed the space between graffiti and conceptual art, at once fulfilling the biased thinking that justified their exclusion and refiguring the entire museum as an art object itself..."

Mother Art, Laundry Works Poster Advertising Performances 1974. Photo via  Pacific Standard Time.

Also included in Pacific Standard Time is an exhibition called Doin It in Public: Feminism and Art at the Woman's Building. Founded in 1973, The Woman's Building was an interdisciplinary artist space that served as a workspace and testing ground for feminist visual and performance art, as well as political activism. Several collectives operated out of the building, including the members of Judy Chicago's groundbreaking Feminist Studio Workshop at Fresno State University, the Feminist Art Workers, and Mother Art, a group of women artists and mothers who staged performances and exhibitions in places such as laundromats in order to question and redefine "women's work". 

Ann Gauldin and members of the Feminist Studio Workshop perform Ready to Order in 1978.  Photo by Maria Karras Jerri Allyn   

One of the most well known performance series to emerge from The Woman's Building artists was The Waitresses. Created in 1977 by members of the Feminist Studio Workshop who were waiting tables to pay for college (and regularly being subjected to objectification and harassment on the job), The Waitresses staged public performances in local restaurants, using humor to draw attention to issues women face in the workplace and stereotypes about waitresses. 

Women's contributions to the Los Angeles art scene are numerous and diverse, although their contributions are often minimized or overlooked when the L.A. scene is documented. Pacific Standard Time exhibitions are on view in venues throughout Southern California, and the PST website provides timelines, photographs, and history for many L.A. artists and art movements.